How Mentoring Serves Both Parties

Recently, I received an email from a former intern of mine when I worked at Clemson University. When I first met her, she was unlike other interns who came in. They were usually very outgoing, talkative, and dressed in lots of orange. This intern had on lots of black, black hair, and was quieter than most applicants. At that time, my internship had become quite competitive and I was able to be very picky about who I hired. I wasn’t looking for the student with a three-page resume, but I also didn’t want someone who still needed help understanding adverbs, semi-colons, and basic writing skills.

When I sat down and started talking with her, I knew I immediately liked her. She was very mature and approached our interview like a true, business interview. She had the right amount of experience to not need hand-holding, but said all the right things to show me she was willing to work hard and learn. To this day, she was still the only candidate I ever had who wrote me a thank you note after the interview experience. That left a mark on me.

Fast forward a few years after our incredible multi-semester time together, and she moved on to graduate school to work at a magazine. She was quickly promoted to head editor and landed a coveted position she’d wanted since enrolling in the prestigious journalism school. From there she went on to New York City, where she still is, and has worked in magazines and now, a digital marcom agency. I have never forgotten how well we got along, how funny she was, and how grateful she has always been for the experience we had together.

Her email was letting me know she took a new position and in the interview, she cited some of the work we’d done together thinking it might have helped her get the role. She’s now a grown woman living in New York but she still took the time to think back on some work we did while she was in college. It warmed my heart to hear that maybe I’d had a small part in shaping her career.

Emails like hers are, thankfully, not rare. I can whole-heartedly say my favorite thing in my 5.5 years of working at Clemson was the writing and communications internship experience I helped create while on the creative publications team. I didn’t just have interns working for me, I took the time to teach them basically everything I knew, get to know who they were, help guide them with career choices, serve as references for grad school applications and first jobs, and even third jobs. My favorite is when an intern reaches out for a reference and hopes they are not bothering me by asking. Just the opposite is true; I love hearing of their success.

Three of my former interns now live in Greenville and one even had my old job when I left Clemson. I am connected with most via social media and hear from them quite frequently. Another is in Atlanta working for a prominent email provider, one is in DC, one went on to law school, one in Chicago, one in North Carolina, one in Seattle at Starbucks. Most, if not all, went on to graduate school or to graduate with honors. There are several others and I can say I’ve heard from over the years and love following on social media.

This is not a blog post to brag on myself, because it’s quite the opposite. It’s to say how much the mentorship experience is beneficial for both parties. There is something special that happens when you mentor someone else and I encourage everyone to find an opportunity to do it. I would be lying if I said every day I found plenty of time to spend with my interns and get my work done, as both could be a full-time job. But it’s those moments you don’t realize you’re affecting someone that makes the reward, days, months, or years later, so much sweeter.

I was a tutor last year for a first grader who needed reading help. Somewhere between spelling word study and reading our favorite Christmas books to one another, we bonded. I got the best hugs from her. At the Valentine’s day show I was sitting on the front row because my son is the smallest so I wanted to see him. I looked up and noticed the girl I tutored was next to my son, so I started waving at her and her face lit up. The woman next to me looked at me strangely as to why I was waving to this girl so excitedly. I said “oh that’s the girl I tutor,” and she said “oh that’s my daughter!” We both started laughing and smiled. She’d heard so much about me and I, her. I complimented her on how sweet her daughter was and she thanked me for helping improve her reading grades. We both thought it was funny that our kids were standing next to one another and here we were, perhaps not-so-coincidentally sitting right next to each other, squeezed in tiny elementary-sized cafeteria chairs.

On the first day of school this year I went to have lunch with my son and asked him where I could find the little girl. I ran over to her and her face lit up! She was so excited to see me, and I her! We exchanged hugs and I realized how much I had missed her over the summer. She is 7! When I was asked to tutor again this year I scoured the list to find her name and begged to be paired up with her again. I admit, at first I was sad to not see her name on the list. But then, I realized it was because she didn’t need a tutor anymore and was doing so well in reading. I now tutor a little boy who is in her same class,  so I still get to see her each week when I go visit him. BUt knowing her grades improved after our time together, and she no longer needs me, is bittersweet but so encouraging. Thankfully, I can still see her at lunches and on field trips I chaperone for my son.

My dad has coached girls’ basketball at our church for close to 30 years. He’s now 70 years old and originally got into it to help fulfill a role to coach my sister’s first-grade team. He never aged up and has served as coach of the 1st and 2nd grade girls all this time. People have questioned over the years why a grown, now senior citizen (sorry dad, but you are) might want to still coach little girls. He doesn’t even have kids, or grandkids on the team. They’ve asked why not coach boys? His reply is, “I only had daughters so I know how to coach them.” As my sister and I are now in our 30s and 40s, and I have kids of my own that would qualify for his team’s age group, he still coaches the little girls.

They laugh when he bounces the ball off his bald head, they shower him with Christmas cards, drawings, and gifts, and he always finds little special knick-knacks to get for them each year. They age up and move on, but many will still come back and see him in middle and high school. You can almost always find him watching his past-players’ games on Saturdays long after his young team has finished.

He recently told me how awesome it was to serve as a mentor to six and seven-year old girls, because many only have dads, brothers and grandfathers as male role models. Because we live in the 21st century, let’s be honest, not many parents are going to willingly find a male in his 50s, 60s, and now 70s, to hang out with their young daughters. But he is different. He whole-heartedly makes the four months he works with these girls some of the best time of their little lives. They learn not only basketball, but teamwork, leadership, friendship, and life skills.

The best example of this was last year, he received a letter from a former player. She’s now married and she was in a unique group who got to play for my dad for four years, from kindergarten through third grade. The rules  changed midway through her Coach Bacon career, and he coached her for four years. These were not high school or college years, but literally, her first years of school.

Her letter first asked if he even would remember her (he did) and she spoke about how he was her favorite coach, she has remembered things she learned from being on his team, and she’d love to see him when she was coming into town a few weekends later. She shared photos and talked about her wedding and job and home. My father was shocked to receive such a message from someone he knew so long ago, and at such a young age. He has coached hundreds of girls (usually to undefeated seasons) and remembers them all, and their families. But the fact that this young woman hand-wrote a two-page letter was such a blessing to my father.

You can imagine her surprise when he wrote her back to say that yes, he was still coaching, and would love to see her at her game. She brought her family and they sat through first-and-second grade girls basketball to watch my dad do what he does best. It was an incredibly sweet reunion.

I write all of this to say that mentoring others, be it professionally or personally, can generate memories for much longer than the actual time spent with someone. I still remember my professional mentors and favorite coaches and teachers. To this day I look up to many bosses and call upon them quite frequently. If your employer provides an opportunity to share your craft, skill, or talents with a someone your junior, don’t be so quick to pass up the opportunity. The world needs more positive relationships, and they can come in the form of 7-year old girls, 70-year old men, 40-year old moms, and everyone in between. You never know the difference you might make in someone’s life, and even more, the difference they’ll make in yours.

 

Early morning wake-up calls

My favorite time of day begins at about 30 seconds after my alarm goes off. Now, you might be wondering what kind of sicko finds this enjoyable, but let me explain. Soon after my alarm, and subsequently my sons’ alarms go off, I hear a pitter patter. If the door shuts, I know it’s my three year old coming out of his room. If it’s a lighter gait, and fewer steps, I know I’m about to be jumped on by my six year old. Regardless, it’s almost as if the boys are waiting for the alarm as the signal that it’s okay to come in my room and wake me up.

Before I can even see their faces, I can smell their “baby” skin. I glimpse out of one half-closed eye, still creased from sleep, barely able to face the early hour. And suddenly, their freckled noses are smashed against mine, greeting me with good-morning kisses.

Sometimes I am lucky, or unlucky depending on how many pillows they want to pile on me, and have both boys come in to greet me.  The six year old, however, typically just walks by with a “hey mom,” and dresses himself, races down the steps, and goes to watch TV before he’s off to school. But on the rare mornings he wants to snuggle, I try to hold him tight.

My conversations with both of them are nothing elaborate or deep. We don’t ponder the future or discuss their hopes and dreams. I don’t hear about what kind of man they hope to be or how can I help shape their career paths. Instead, we usually try and figure out if it will rain that day, if it’s lunchbox day, and what extracurricular, exciting activity is planned for the evening. Occasionally I hear about a friend’s misdoings at school or the wild dream they had the night before.

These conversations are often followed by some sort of wrestling move that typically leaves me bruised or half-crying, as 38 lbs of hard-rock flesh jumps on me in every form and fashion. As they bounce up and down, using my body as their trampoline, I have to remind myself this won’t last forever. I already see my older son more rarely coming in for morning snuggles. So I endure the pain and silently give all those other moms of boys an invisible high five for knowing what only we go through.

By this time, I am certainly awake. My 75-lb dog has usually tried to join in on the fun a few times, much to his dismay, and the lights are equivalent to the sun shining through my eyes whether I want them to or not. We are fully up and ready to face the day. But for those few blissful minutes before the chaos begins, I am so very thankful. I am thankful for their health, their beauty, their kisses, their smiles, their kindness to others, and their sweetness to me. And in those moments, I wish we’d woken up 15 minutes earlier just for this ritual to last a little longer.

While I certainly don’t welcome the alarm each day, I know I’ll miss those footsteps running down the hall. Their failed attempts at trying to be quiet and surprise me as they jump in my bed to greet me will be a memory. It will eventually become just the dreaded alarm again. I’ll miss caressing their cheeks and blonde, transparent hair that will eventually grow more brunette. Their soft skin will become weathered and textured and more manly. One day, they will be young men, and grown men, and snuggling and cuddling is going to be weird or gross. So yes, for those 15 minutes each morning, I don’t care what hour it is, I’ll take it.

 

Messy bedhead, perfect morning, look-of-the-day

God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.

 

 

This picture above represents so much uncertainty at a new stage of my life, yet so much certainty around the amount of love I already had in those first few hours of being a mother. With Christmas looming, I’ve been sharing with my now-six-year-old the story of Jesus’s birth, and how Mary bore a son who came from God. While skipping the birds and bees talk, we’ve talked about Mary’s journey, and the fear she had. We talked about how hard the journey to Bethlehem was for her, and how she probably wasn’t dying to get on a donkey at 9 months pregnant and take that trip. I’ve told him how sometimes we’re asked to do things we’re not thrilled to do, but somehow feel called to do.

But now, thinking to myself, what an incredibly overwhelming feeling that must have been to know you’re carrying the Lord’s son. I’ll admit, at times I’ve been a little skeptical about the virgin birth, and Immaculate Conception. It seems improbable at times, but Jesus wasn’t exactly like anyone else I know. So why couldn’t he have been conceived unlike anyone else I know? That’s the beauty of faith.

This coming Sunday I’m taking a new step in my faith. I’m doing something, that, initially I wasn’t jumping up and down to do. Like the above picture, I don’t really know what I’m doing and what is to come in the next three years. Just as I’ve done with much of motherhood, I’m going to have to figure it out as I go. I’m being installed as an elder at church, along with four other people who will, I’m sure, grow to be friends. The congregation has asked me to serve in this position for the last three years, and each year I’ve said no. Instead I’ve taught Sunday school, coached basketball, kept the nursery, taught Vacation Bible School, served meals, and many other roles that make the church go ‘round. But I’ve never said yes to being an elder.

I didn’t say no because I wasn’t interested, or was afraid to do the hard work. Each time they asked there was something tugging at me to say yes, but part of me was scared. I’m not the savviest biblical scholar, or donate the most money each month, or pride myself on being the No. 1 Christian in my church. Although I don’t think God keeps score of who is a bigger Christian than the other. But mainly, for the last three years I’ve either lived 30 minutes away from church, or had a newborn, or young toddlers who demanded my attention. My husband thrives on routine and for me to be gone a few nights a week or Sundays a month means his routines are off. I think it took more for me to convince him than it did myself.

This year, however, they asked again. I now live 4 miles from church. I get home from work no later than 6. My sons are three and six, and are fairly self-sufficient, especially if an iPad or TV is around. Not to say we throw them in front of screens all the time, but for the 1.5 hours I’m gone to church session meetings, my husband will still be able to do his Sunday chore of laundry and emptying the trash around the house. (Yes, I realize how great this is, and I’m happy to encourage it by occupying the kids during this time). So, I don’t really have a real reason to say no. Sunday meetings will still mean i can come home after church and go back out without feeling like I’m in the car all day. Committee meetings and events are doable because I get home on week nights at a decent time. My husband is capable of bathing our kids and putting them to bed should I be out late. No one is depending on me for every minute of their day. (sad but true).

My time teaching Sunday school, assisting as the liturgist, tithing each month, leading children’s worship, serving in the nursery, teaching Vacation Bible School, serving on ad hoc committees, etc., has prepared me to step into this role with more wisdom and experience. In some ways, I was saying no each year to get more experience so that when it WAS time to say yes, I felt more confident.

My pastor told me that God does not call the equipped, but rather equips the called. I love this saying and have been thinking about it a lot. When first asked, I felt a little intimidated, as though I’m not the right servant for the position. It’s easy to say no to such a big role, like being on the session. It’s really easy to wonder if I made the right decision when former members act shocked that I said yes, or tell me good luck, rather than congratulations. It makes me wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. But like Mary on that donkey, I’m going into this journey not necessarily because I’m thrilled to, but because I know it’s my turn to serve and it’s my turn to watch my faith grow in new ways.

At 40, I’m perhaps one of the youngest people on the session and many have been leaders in the church for a REALLY long time. But as someone who has been a member since 1981, I’ve got something most don’t have. And that’s the knowledge of being a lifelong member through every sitting pastor, growing up in the youth programs, attending as a young adult, and finally as a parent of young kids. Most people don’t return and go to their childhood church. But as we visited several in the area before settling down back at St. Giles, we chose it for ourselves this time and not just because my parents went there or I grew up there. By choice, we were married there, and had both children baptized all by the same pastor—who just announced last week he’s leaving us after 14 years.

So now, as I am prepared to share my faith journey this weekend in front of the other installed leaders, I will probably have some of that same doubt and uncertainty I’ve had before.  But since I’ve felt called to serve in this position for the next three years, I have to believe God will equip me. He’ll give me the ability to take on a heavier load of meetings, activities, tough decisions, and serving others. He’ll equip Sean, as I’m gone from home a little more often, and grant him patience and strength in my absence. He will give me the knowledge to lead, and empower others, and hopefully, make our church an even better place as we transition with a new pastor.

As we roll into this holiday season, I hope everyone will remember the reason for the season, and think about serving others in any capacity. It can mean a dollar at the Salvation Army, a coat for a cold child, or adopting an Angel tree kid. It can mean attending church or smiling at someone or helping someone carry a package to their car. A little kindness goes a long way. Remember, God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. Listen to that inner voice and when you don’t want to do something, think twice, and maybe do it even if it’s outside of your comfort zone. Think about Mary on that donkey, bumping up and down, probably having to pee, and yelling at Joseph to slow down. After all, shouldn’t we all slow down on life’s biggest journey?

Nothing Worth Doing Comes Easy

This morning on the way to school, or rather in the garage, mid-five-point-harness-buckling, my almost-six-year-old son asked me if being a mommy was hard. I paused for a second. My two-year-old son was running wild in the driveway after being asked 10 times to get in the car. My watch showed I had exactly one minute before I had to be out of the neighborhood to miss the crazy traffic situation that would put me in the death trap of carpool line. I bumped my head on the ceiling from bending over to buckle said five-year-old boy in a car seat that every other kid his age can do themselves; but we have a little guy on our hands.

“Hmm,” I replied. I really thought long about how to answer this question. Does he want my answer right now? My stomach is growling, from not eating breakfast yet, while my youngest is begging for a cheese stick (which will be his mid-early-morning breakfast because he still has another coming at daycare and already had a snack first thing this morning).

Does he want to know how I would answer this at 6 pm? The time I come home from work and just want to sit on the couch with my husband, envious of his laptop, web-surfing and shopping while the boys are watching TV and I’m asked “what’s for dinner?” for the fourth time this week.

Does he want my answer at 8:15, when naked boys run around refusing to put on their pajamas, squirting enough toothpaste to fill eight toothbrushes, fighting with their towels, and I’m cleaning up pee that I’m not sure is from the dog or the two year old?

Or does he want the answer when just 15 minutes later we’re all three snuggling in chair, reading “Try it You’ll Like it” for the fourth time this week. His younger brother reciting the words and pointing out familiar objects in the book as though he illustrated Arthur, The Brain, Binky, and D.W. himself. My heart is happy knowing our nightly reading is sinking in somewhere, and they enjoy this uninterrupted time.

Perhaps he wants my much-deeper thoughts of how to decide if a kid who’s academically and socially advanced, but physically the size of his much-younger brother and also the youngest in the class, should start kindergarten. And how I weighed it and took a gamble, prayed bullying won’t start until he’s much older and has an army of friends to protect him. I worry the same about his brother as well, who’s much bigger but has an even later birthday and would start college at 17 because his birthday is after school even begins.

Maybe he wants to know what it felt like to go into labor three weeks early unannounced. That scary feeling of “why is my water breaking this early? Will he be okay?” The 24+ hours of labor, the three hours of waiting for the epidural to wear off because it was so strong I couldn’t tell when to push. Or maybe the moment when I met him and my world exploded with love.

Does he want to know how in between he and his brother, I lost a pregnancy. I still think sometimes if it was a baby girl or boy? If it hadn’t happened, how we wouldn’t have his beautiful, rambunctious, and amazing little brother? But how hard, in that week of miscarriage, I struggled. How much I felt like a horrible mom to that baby I lost and how hard it was to even want to try again?

I looked down at my phone alarm reminding me of a meeting this morning juxtaposed to a school volunteer moment, get-a-gift-for-Aiden’s-birthday-party-reminder and the upcoming K5 graduation ceremony. Does he want to know how much I struggle with being a working mother, knowing it’s for the best, but how much I just want to appease him when he begs to be a car rider who gets out at 2:30? Sure, I could do it, I’ve told him. But we wouldn’t live where we do now, nor be able to go to the beach or play T-ball or get the latest fidget spinner. Well, maybe we could oblige for a fidget spinner.

When your baby is throwing up every day, screaming, crying, from an illness, can’t tell you why, and your husband is on night shift so you’re alone five nights a week, it’s damn hard to be a mother. It’s much easier to be that girl in yoga pants who didn’t actually do yoga and just watched Dateline and Law and Order SVU on Sunday afternoons. You start to question your sanity. It’s harder than hard.

But when they’re a little older and cry from throwing up and you know they just had too much fun in the bounce house or a stomach bug went around the daycare for the 10th time, and they just want you to hold them and cuddle them, it’s easy. It’s easy to be a mom when they fall and get a tiny scratch that changes their skin from pink to light red, yet to them equates a pint of blood loss. Because then, they need their mom. It’s easy when they want you to bring them some water because their throat hurts or just come back in for one last kiss before lights out.

Sometimes, when my husband has a much-needed guys’ night away, I let my oldest sleep with me. I’ve never been a co-sleeper and my kids will talk in their beds for what feels like hours, perfectly content, and fall asleep on their own. I need my me time. But on those nights, it’s an extra treat (because let’s face it, my husband doesn’t exactly get a guys’ night away nearly as often as he would like, or deserves). On those nights, it’s pretty easy to be a mom and just look at his long eyelashes over his soft cheeks while he sleeps next to me. Instead of waking up to, “I want the iPad,” he’ll wake up and kiss my nose to say good morning. Those days, being a mom is pretty darn easy.

Having a conference with his teacher and hearing how well he’s doing in school, not just academically but socially and emotionally, makes it pretty easy to be a mom. Watching him hit his first baseball, or sing in the choir, or share his coveted fidget spinner with his screaming brother, it’s pretty easy to be a mom. It’s better than easy, it’s awesome.

And it’s even more rewarding when they read a book to me for a change, or put together a mother’s day gift all on their own. Or hell, even pee pee on the potty correctly every.single.time.

Some days are long, hard, tiring, trying, annoying, hair-pulling, gut-wrenching, sickening, confusing, and mind-blowing. And within those same days are moments of bliss, pride, hilarious laughter and overflowing joy.

“Well, sometimes it’s really, really hard, and other times it’s the easiest job in the world.” I said. “But I wouldn’t trade any of it because I love you,” I replied about two seconds later.  I buckled him in, scooped up the two-year-old who was now peeing in the bushes by the basketball goal, and drove to school. He seemed content with that answer, probably never knowing my 20-other could-be thoughts on the question, and that’s just the way I like it.

 

Vibrating with Love and Light, in a World Gone Mad.

I’ll be honest. I’m not good with death. I never have been. It’s probably ironic because I’m a Christian and so I believe that we’ll go to heaven, that it’s an amazing place, that everything is awesome (thanks Lego movie). Yet it’s the unknown and it’s so finite that it scares the hell out of me. It scares me to think about leaving my boys behind or my husband. Or worse, it scares me to think what would happen to me if something happened to them.

2016 was filled with a lot of death for me, and especially the final week of 2016. There seems to be something somewhat relieving when you lose someone who struggled with a long illness. Their pain is gone, and you feel hope and happiness that they aren’t suffering anymore. But when you lose someone with no notice, no final chance to say goodbye or I love you, it’s just hard to grasp.

My uncle who I was close to died suddenly at work in June. He had a massive heart attack, just like his father who died while shopping at Walmart. I went through several minutes, hours and days of shock. My mom’s face told me someone died as I met her in the hallway close to midnight. I’d gotten up to use the bathroom and heard her crying. I immediately thought of my 91-year-old-grandmother. But instead it was her younger brother. The one who called me his favorite niece. The one with a smile so wide you could cut it in half and it was still bigger than most. There was no way.

His funeral was hard on everyone. I didn’t want to see the open casket because I don’t like to have their bodies as my lasting memories. Yet in an effort to shield my son’s eyes I accidentally turned when the casket was open, and saw him. I almost collapsed. The grief washed over me and I just erputed in more tears. It’s been six months and I still have a hard time looking at his photos without crying.

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Uncle Bill holding my son Cameron

Fast forward a few months and Sean’s favorite uncle, the one I’ve heard a zillion stories about, and who, in person told me many of those same stories, was getting sick. His illness started to digress very quickly and it was soon apparent he was not going to make it. To watch my husband lose his favorite uncle was hard. He wanted to make the journey to New Orleans to be near him in his final days. It became even more obvious that there weren’t going to be final days, but perhaps final hours. The plane flight at that last minute was more than we could afford and so he had to begin his grieving process privately at home. The Uncle Dan stories were always told with so much spirit and liveliness. He was so alive in every story and will continue to be. The few times I met him he loved to tell me all the fun he had with the Clark boys on their vacations to Deep Creek camping as kids. See, there’s something special about uncles. They can give guidance like fathers but also have a little more fun than fathers can with their nephews and nieces. For Sean and I to lose ours in the same year was particularly tragic. The only positive I guess was that we both knew how the other felt, only Sean didn’t get to gather with family for a memorial. That time will hopefully come at a later date to spread his ashes. I know he would enjoy everyone telling their favorite Uncle Dan stories and I hope he gets to do that with his family soon.

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Uncle Dan and Cameron

Within a few days, I learned a family friend who had been struggling for years, finally succumbed to his ongoing heart problems. While this might not be unheard of for a man in his late 60s. But this particular man was my dad’s best friend and basically a second father. His son was my close friend growing up and our parents spent many, many years together traveling and eating weekly meals. It was yet another punch in the gut to know he was gone. Here I was at yet another funeral of someone I loved. I watched my dad give the eulogy and he had people laughing outloud. He delivered it so gracefully and with love and compassion, tearing up at the end, but trying to keep it positive. You could see all the years of public speaking my dad had done come to life. Yet you could also feel his grief and pain amid the raw emotion. I wept many tears.

At first, I hated knowing he’d died on Christmas. I felt so bad for the family thinking that their memories of his death would be on Christmas. But the pastor at the funeral talked about Christmas is actually about birth. It’s about Jesus, the man who later died for our sins so that we could live such beautiful lives. It’s all about sacrifice and a life that was actually only meant for death, so that we could live. And so to make the parallel that Christmas is about life, and so David’s anniversary should be thought of more as a day to recognize his life and not the sadness of his death, made me feel a little better.

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My dad’s best friend Dave.

As the end of the year drew to a close I thought maybe I could shut the door on 2016. I was getting ready for the new year to begin and picked up my son at his afterschool program. There, I ran into an old friend, Justin, who’d had some health problems earlier in the year. It had been over a year since I’d seen him, but we quickly exchanged hugs and his trademark smile welcomed me. We even spoke on the phone the next night, catching up for a few minutes. The next day, I would learn, he had died on new years eve. Only 41 years old, the father of two young girls, and he was gone.

This week, his friends have been sharing what could only be described as amazingly awesome and hilarious photos of their life with Justin. From silly Halloween costumes to high school shenanigans to beautiful photos of him with his daughters, there is one thing in common in all of them, Justin smiling. To say he loved life was an understatement. As plans for his funeral come together, people are quick to begin planning the after-party. Everyone who knew Justin knows he would not want a sad affair with no smiles. But instead we all plan to gather somewhere, swap stories, have a beer, laugh a lot and remember the character he was.

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Always-smiling, Justin

But amid these smiles and laughs I can’t help but think about the cliché of how short life is. One of my best friends lost his son before his life ever even began. Stillborn at 35 weeks, their baby never even had a chance. Yet again, my heart broke and yearned for a life that wouldn’t come back. It’s not fair. Why does this keep happening? As kids we think we have forever in front of us, and at 39, it’s apparent we don’t.

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RIP Sweet Baby Johnson

Another close friend lost her brother in law this past fall and endured their first holidays without him. My heart continues to ache for her and her family. There’s just been too much death for me to handle in one year. Especially at age 39.

So, in trying to make sense of all of this, I’m trying to come to some conclusions.

  • Tell people you love them. And show it. Don’t just say it because it’s what you say when you hang up the phone or walk out the door. Say it with conviction. My oldest son told me today that he loved me to Pluto and back, and Pluto is REALLY far. He told me I was the prettiest mom in the entire galaxy (he’s on a space kick) and that I was the best mom in the entire universe. That is saying a lot.
  • Drop the small stuff. Seriously. LIFE IS TOO SHORT. Get over yourselves and the crap that keeps you unhappy. Have the hard conversations to get to where you need to be with people. Don’t be self righteous or stubborn. Everyone needs forgiveness and there is no way to heal or move past things if you don’t talk them through. Silence solves nothing.
  • Live responsibly but do some things you might not ever do. I’m not saying go spend all your money because you might not live to see tomorrow. But take an art class or go to a concert. Do things that make you happy. Scare yourself every now and again.
  • Try to make time for people you take for granted. Sure your family is always your family but how often do you really go do something social with them that isn’t just a holiday or an event? Is your best friend always around but you don’t really get together just to laugh and grab dinner and talk? Find time to text someone who might not hear from you often but might just be aching to receive a hello. You never know how much it can mean for someone to have one last conversation with you that they might not have had otherwise. I personally love knowing Justin and I saw each other just days before he died and we hugged, laughed, and he met my oldest son. It will be a wonderful positive memory.
  • Give hugs, kisses, high fives, compliments, all that cheesy lovey-dovey hippie stuff that makes the world go round. We need more positivity and less negative stuff. Again, life is too short.

I’m sure there is more but I’m trying hard to live by these conclusions. I got to reconnect with a couple of old friends this year and I’m trying to nurture those friendships. I’m was able to visit two of my close friends for a weekend at the beach that was just a girls’ getaway. I got to see lots of concerts with many friends and my husband. All of these wonderful memories and paths to happiness are crucial for me going forward.

I’m trying to pray more in 2017 to find some peace and answers to all of this death and hope that if there is more around the corner, I will be able to handle it. I’m not Debbie Downer but rather trying to turn negatives into positiives. As one of my favorite Phish songs says, “I’m vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light, in a world gone mad, a world gone mad. There must be something more than this.” I truly believe and hope to be every word of that.

What I found in THE Box

My husband and I are in the middle of quite a big move from a residence of six years and two children to a new home across town. It might as well be across the country though, as we’re transferring schools and cities and counties even. So even though it’s 30 minutes away, it requires a move of almost the same proportions.

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Packing with two young children and working full time has brought on its share of challenges. But it’s also been a great opportunity to purge so many things we thought were important many years ago. For instance, I wanted to show my future daughter so many of my collectible items or dolls and pass them down. But now, with no daughters in our life, they are really just collecting dust. A memento of a family trip or a Cabbage Patch doll really doesn’t carry the same weight it did 32 years ago.

My husband and I have enjoyed opening boxes to find our high school yearbooks, images from before we knew one another. We’ve been laughing and sharing stories and even finding preschool and grade school report cards. Knowing that at my oldest son’s age I excelled in preschool but got in trouble for talking is a pretty direct prediction for what is to come with his progress report in a few weeks. We’re both not starving when it comes to communication. But nonetheless, it’s been fun walking down memory lane.

One box I have moved with me a few times but has always been on my shelf unopened is from a lawyer who represented me in my lawsuit against Honda for my airbag case. Having permanent vision loss from an airbag, that box represents a lot of hard times and negativity for me that I never wanted to reopen. I contemplated not taking it to the next house, even burning it in our burn barrel outside. But I figured if there were ever advances in medicine enough to replace my vision and eye, it might be nice to have a summary of what all happened in one easy-to-find box.

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Last night though, I opened it. I prepared myself for the instant depression or sadness that I assumed would wash over me as I saw the images I’d avoided for a long time. Photos of airbags, my face, my eye. Medical records as thick as novels and letters from insurance companies to doctors to lawyers, all outlining the grave condition.

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This is what an airbag will do to you.

Mixed in with those records I found cards and emails from friends I’d kept. They were beautiful letters to how I would and could overcome the injury. I’m so thankful I kept them because their words rang so true. I found myself enjoying those letters as I’d forgotten I even had them. At one point I wanted to throw every and anything away that had to do with the wreck.

I kept expecting sadness or tears or some emotion to overcome me. Even realizing the words on the page of permanent blindness, future potential for X disease or X complications, I felt nothing. Because in the big picture, this box represented one of 100 in my bonus room upstairs that had 99 other wonderful memories. How could I let one box take over me in a way the others didn’t? Why would this box be any more powerful than the one with photos from church camp and high school parties?

Most important is the fact that while packing, I am surrounded by the reminder that I overcame it. My friend Betsy’s words from her card rang true, 11 years later. I had moved on in such a wonderful way. Because right next to the box of childhood memories and my legal files, was a pack and play box. Next to that was a slew of kids’ birthday party decorations I keep hanging on to. And next to that, my wedding box of invitations, flower ideas, guest lists and photos.

Those are the memories that matter. For every ounce of negative energy I spent hating my wreck, I’ve enjoyed 10X that much joy in my life. And to think of all I’ve been blessed with since then gives me far greater happiness. Two amazing kids, a supportive loving husband who is still my best friend, a fabulous job I love and now, a new home in an area I can’t wait to move to. The predictions my doctors made aren’t coming true. I’m not in eternal hell or pain or struggling. And that’s not to say I don’t have really dark days or hard times. Because I do. I still have nights where I can’t drive in the dark or random eye pain.

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Proposal in New York City

But I have the support system of those friends who got me through it, and those who are still here today. And when those harder days make their way through, it’s that network of people who move me forward. There’s no need to open the box and feel sadness of what I lost. Looking at images of my mauled face used to bring on tears. Today it just feels unfortunate, but it’s only one of several big moments in life.

I’ve avoided opening the literal Pandora’s box for 9 years now. The last correspondence from my attorney was in 2007 and I have had that box sealed all this time. SO much of it I didn’t even remember or swore I’d never seen before, which makes me even happier because it was my handwriting.

I’m so thankful for all who’ve helped me move forward and onward. Whether you were there in 2004 with phones calls, or today, picking me up from the doctor’s office when I get my eyes dilated, or even my coworkers who’ve quit throwing candy across the cubes for fear I’ll get hit in my good eye. You all help in some way and I can never thank you enough. Because opening that box and not feeling anything I thought I’d feel, is more of a reward than any financial settlement or lawsuit can provide.

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How could I not love this life?

This Didn’t Suck—My Riviera Maya Phish review.

It’s not everyday I am struggling to find an adjective that can describe an experience I’ve had. There are many that come to mind over the years: beautiful, extravagant, horrid, wonderful, amazing, magical, even. And yet this weekend I got to experience something so unique and outrageous I am suffering from post-show depression.

 

As many know, Phish has been my favorite band for more than 20 years. My parents keep waiting for me to “outgrow” Phish, which I don’t quite get. They have seen every home football game at the University of Tennessee my entire life (approx.) yet they haven’t outgrown it, because they love it. Same thing for me. I’ve been to shows in California, the Everglades of Florida, Madison Square Garden, countless sheds and amphitheaters and arenas, Radio City Music Hall, you name it. I’ve followed this band as far as I can.

 

But of course for many of us, our Phish following days are limited now with careers and children. Going to a show within a 100-mile radius on a weekend seems to be the best I can do nowadays. While they are still fun and wonderful, the backdrop becomes predictable, the crowd too similar, and dare I say, sometimes lackluster to drive into the same paved or gravel lot to see many of the same people. Of course, inside, it’s wonderful, but I’ve been craving something different.

 

When Phish announced they were playing in Mexico in an all-inclusive resort environment, I could not have dreamed it better if I tried. Yes it was pricey, but we had recently sold our rental property and had a little extra to spend. Our family could keep our children and we somehow lucked out with tickets the morning they went on sale. We could only do the three-night trip at the Hard Rock hotel, but it was worth it.

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To say it was an amazing vacation doesn’t sum it up. To say it was a beautiful setting is not pretty enough. It was breathtaking, and almost like the Twilight Zone. After an easy trip to Cancun from Charlotte, NC, there was a shuttle waiting for us with Phish attire, easily marking themselves. The hour wait for the shuttle was long and hot but the fans were all together mingling, meeting, exchanging hometown information and our show history. There was excitement in the air of the “hurry up and get me there” variety. Everyone was jumping out of their skin in anticipation.

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we’ve arrived

Our bus ride was quite jovial and loud, something you’d expect from a bunch of 30-40 year olds who most likely all have professional jobs and/or families but were going to get to act like college kids again for a few days. We continued our silly banter and the hour-ride went by quickly.

 

Checking into the all-inclusive was a little lengthy but having waiters bring your choice of beverage in the lobby helped dampen the blow of the systems being down and check-in times slowing to a crawl. Of course, when the CID (promotion company) handed you your Phish swag of a beach towel, sunglasses and croakies, it made things once again, worth the wait.

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Welcome to Mexico!

Our room was small but well-appointed and our view of the ocean and hammocks were breathtaking. Again, that same level of excitement permeated every breath I took. I was on the cusp of something so cool, even I had no idea how to feel.

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view from the room

My husband soon took a turn for the very worse with his first-ever migraine and the juxtaposition of his need for dark and quiet caused confusion with my friend’s classic greeting of a very loud “HIT IT” as we saw one another for the first time in months. I was jumping in a hard embrace into his arms and my poor hubby found himself vomiting before he ever had a sip of Mexican water. He was out for the show. Being the good wife that I am, I checked on him once more and then being the great Phish fan that I am, I told him to take some (bottled) water and meds and text me later. Of course, I went to the show. There was nothing I could do for him and all he needed was sleep, quiet and darkness. None of which described Phish that night.

 

So my friends and I journeyed to shuttle, which was maybe a 3-minute walk away from our room. To have a ride to the show, at a different location, with no issues, is something I rarely experience. My husband is always the driver but I hate to make him be the DD, so we often Uber it or try to find other forms of (often expensive) transportation. Here was a free shuttle with 50 other silly friends along for the ride.

 

We were dropped off a paved road and again walked about 5-8 minutes. Prta johns and water waited us as we got off and by the time we got to the check in, it snaked around for security, and we were in quickly. To say it felt like I was entering Disney World for the first time is an understatement. I walked onto the beach that was transformed into a Phish playground. Palm trees were covered in colorful crotchet décor. Waiters awaited me with blue tequila shots and my drinks of choice. A bar within 50 yards had several choices for beverages and water bottles HAD THE LIDS ON THEM!!!!!! (probably my favorite thing ever). As any fan knows, we go to shows and sometimes you just want a water for reserve. But they take off the lid making it impossible to hold on to for very long without being spilled. Because the show was earlier than most of the restaurants’ opening times at the resorts, they had a buffet awaiting us each night. While not amazing cuisine, it was enough to keep our bodies full and make sure the alcohol was balanced.

 

After walking by the indulgent scenery, I could make out a mariachi band and a stage, which felt dwarfed compared to other Phish “festivals.” Dare I say I felt like I was in a backyard party. I looked over at my friend and his jaw was agape just like mine. Were we really next to the ocean, toes in the sand, awaiting Phish to play?

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Hola amiga!

We continued to walk around and notice the special touches Phish and the promo company put together for us. Bathrooms were easy to get to, not to mention the best porta johns ever. Lights, flushing, running water! And the wait staff was the hardest working group of Mexican men and women I’ve ever seen. They were polite and friendly and appreciated our small uses of Spanish and of course, I was happy to tip them.

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magic trees

On the first night, the lights went down to that familiar roar and the music began. While we all knew the shows would include many ocean, sand, sea, waves references, the opener did not disappoint. Throughout the set I kept thinking of my husband back in the room, hating he was missing many of his favorite songs.

 

And while at times, it felt like a familiar Phish show, I’d get a few grains of sand under my toes, I had the humidity of a summer Atlanta show, but then an ocean breeze would lift my hair. As my throat became parched and my lips cracked from smiling and the salty air, a waiter appeared with a cold beverage. Two minutes later, not wanting to litter and wondering what to do with my plastic cup, another staff member came by with a plastic trash bag. All while I was in my “row” listening to Phish. I never moved and had all my needs met.

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I could hear splashing at one point and decided to check out the ocean. The stage was literally right on the beach, with zero barrier to the ocean. There had been much speculation on fan sites about people staying at the nearby resort and swimming the channel to come sneak in. There were rumors of kids renting catamarans and yachts and trying to swim in or hear from the ocean. It turns out, all of this happened. Paddle boarders were playing in the ocean, “pirated” kids swam up with no wristbands and overwhelmed the lifeguards, and other fans swam up from their catamaran and got turned away.

 

While some of that is hard to stomach for those of us who paid a pretty penny to attend this weekend, it also showed you the level of dedication many fans will go to. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to pay for tickets, they just couldn’t get one. This was a very limited-edition type of weekend, with only a select thousand able to go. Tickets went faster than MSG on ticketmaster’s bots it seemed and were much harder to get because scalpers didn’t have them. My friends only made it because of the wait list.

 

But even more magical in the ocean were just the fans who wanted to see what it felt like to swim, have their toes in the water and listen to Phish at the same time. Each night the water party became more and more intense, with what could only be described as a grown-up splash pool at a water park. There was a second lighting director who was only there to light the water and trees. The band probably spent more than half of the show watching the water and fans playing than the crowd in front of them. This was in and of itself a show to be seen. Trey, the guitar player said, “well this doesn’t suck.” And later dedicated a song to the paddle boarders. To say the band was enjoying the view as much as we were was quite obvious.

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the initial water dancers, this grew by 100s each night.

When it came time for set break or bathroom breaks, it was easy to navigate. I found my friends again and later decided to venture up front. Unlike Phish’s larger festivals with 10s of thousands of people, I could grab a beer, use the bathroom, find my spot again all within one relatively shorter song. The lack of inconvenience for anything was so foreign to me, and what made me start to realize how mesmerizing the experience was. This wasn’t just a Phish show or another festival. This was something I was beyond lucky to be able to attend.

 

After the show ended, I wondered what type of chaos the shuttle scene would look like. Instead, I found myself in a very short line with my hotel’s namesake and 10 minutes later was back at my resort. I was reminded of the scene outside a Miami New Years show where I walked an hour to find a cab. Or the Uber line once after an Atlanta show where all of my excitement waned and my mood turned sour because we were in the ghetto, trying to find a ride for longer than I care to recall. Not in Mexico. Once again, every detail was considered and I was back home, to my now-feeling-better-and-sad-he-missed-it husband.

 

The next day, we ventured out of the room to our resort and had a blissfully indulgent day soaking in the sun, making new friends, tasting various tequilas, playing in the ocean, laughing, reminiscing, catching up, etc etc etc. For a while I forgot I was down there to see Phish and was just enjoying a tropical, all-inclusive beach vacation. The 80-degree sun started warming my shoulders to a peachy color and I could feel new freckles coming on that would not be seen for months when I returned to colder weather. And then, I’d remember I get to see Phish again that night!

The second night was much of the same experience. New friends, old friends, a great spot with a great view, waiters, trash cleaners, crazy water dancing, a quick ride home. This time, not as much humidity, but an intense ocean breeze the entire show. Like standing in front of a fan the whole time. And again, a quick ride home.

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awesome hubby

For my final day, I awoke at 9 am for a spa morning consisting of a free massage and facial. Then, using our free resort credits once again, I booked two beach cabanas with butler service for my husband, me, and our friends. Lounging on comfortable chaises overlooking the ocean and listening to music with a waiter was not the worst way to spend the day. With two young children and a full-time job, sitting around doing nothing is not part of my vocabulary. Rest and chilling out are not in my vernacular. This was blissful to say the least. Once again, 80+ degrees and not a care in the world permeated my thoughts, and again, I realized I got to see Phish once more before going home!

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cabana view

For the final evening, my friends and I went in early, check-in was a breeze and the temperature was about 10 degrees cooler. Even better. Dare I say I was almost chilly? The mariachi band awaiting us made me smile and we stopped for a fun group photo. We walked up about 15 rows from the front row and all had the same spot together for the show. For my final night of this vacation, it was perfect.

 

People bitched and moaned about certain songs, or the food, or this and that. But to be perfectly honest, every detail was considered and all the things that mattered were well attended to. It was a small, intimate festival, with a big price tag and yet and even bigger reward. It was an escape from reality, a vacation to the beach, and an opportunity to experience something new. I think the band enjoyed it as much as we did.

As I was exiting the venue for the last night I ran into Phish’s lyricist, Tom Marshall. Being a creative writer and songwriter myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He’s easy to find at shows, with his grey hair and extremely tall frame. He walked by me and I yelled to him “Hey Tom! Thanks for the fun lyrics.” And he stopped, looked at me and thanked me for listening to them.” It was playful, quick exchange but one that I loved. I ran into two friends from college on the way out as well as my new friends I met in the ocean. It was the perfect ending. Old meets new.

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silly friends

AS I begin my trajectory home toward the familiar and routine, I’m having a hard time taking off my bracelet, unpacking my souvenirs and saying goodbye to the weekend. I’m having an even harder time seeing anyone dream of complaining. Thank you Phish, thank you CID Entertainment, and thank you fans for making my little world complete for four days!

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a Drone captured this view